Priesthood Offices

Priesthood Offices

D&C 20, 68, 1o7

John A. Tvedtnes

“We believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church, namely, apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and so forth.” (Articles of Faith 6)

Mormon Leaders First PresidencyWith the loss of the apostleship during the great apostasy, the early Christian Church had to rely on local officers for guidance, notably the bishops, presbyters (elders, though later understood to be priests), and deacons. In time, as more people accepted the message of Christ, bishops in some of the larger cities became the leaders around which the rural bishops rallied and the office of patriarch was instituted for those more important bishops. The term patriarch denotes rule by a “father,” so these bishops were called by fatherly titles, including papa, which became pope when denoting the bishop of Rome. With the split between the eastern and western branches of the church, the title patriarch continued in the east but was replaced in the west by the term archbishop. Ultimately, the Roman Catholic Church instituted the office of cardinal to denote those leaders who would be authorized to select new popes as their predecessors passed on.

Some of the original church offices disappeared, including those of apostle and seventy. The New Testament Church had been patterned after the organization of Moses’ time, when a group of twelve tribal leaders were assisted by seventy others selected from the tribes of Israel.[i] Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls describe a leadership that consisted of three priests and twelve righteous men, which seem to parallel the First Presidency and Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.[ii]

Some of the offices were remembered even after the apostasy had taken place. For example, in the pseudepigraphic Revelation of Saint John the Theologian, the apostle asks Christ “do all the Christians go into one punishment? Kings, high priests, priests, patriarchs, rich and poor, bond and free?” to which Christ responds by naming the offices of “kings . . . patriarchs, and priests, and Levites.”[iii]

The mention of Levites is interesting because these Israelite religious officials were replaced in the early Christian Church (and today in the restored Church) by teachers and deacons who, like the Old Testament Levites, work alongside priests of the order of Aaron. A Syriac text entitled Exposition of the Mysteries of the Church notes that “the deacons represent the former Levites” (folio 187a).[iv] The Syriac writer Moses Bar Kepha, in his Explanation of the Mysteries of the Oblation, wrote “The deacons (also) fill the place of the former levites” (folio 151b) and that “the stoles (orarium) which are upon their left shoulders declare their subjection, like subordinates who are in subjection; for he who is in authority wears the stole upon his head or upon both of his shoulders” (folio 152a).[v]

Compare this with Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 2.4.25, which says, that the “holy bishops . . . are your high priests, as the presbyters are your priests, and your present deacons instead of your Levites . . . but He who is above all these [i.e., Christ] is the High Priest.”[vi] Another passage of the Constitutions speaks of the “deacon who is at the high priest’s hand” during the consecration of the eucharist. “After this let the deacon pray for the whole Church, for the whole world, and the several parts of it, and the fruits of it; for the priests and the rulers, for the high priest and the king, and the peace of the universe. After this let the high priest pray for peace upon the people, and bless them, as Moses commanded the priests to bless the people” (Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 2.7.57).[vii] These passages, along with others to be cited later, clearly indicate that the earliest Christians acknowledged the office of high priest in the Church.

High Priests

The general view among Protestants is that there never was an office of high priest in the Christian Church and that Christ alone is a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.[viii] This is based on declarations in the epistle to the Hebrews, in which Christ is seen as the high priest of a new order, that of Melchizedek, which replaced the priesthood of the Aaronic order (Hebrews 2:17; 3:1; 4:14-15; 5:1, 5, 10; 6:20; 7:1, 26; 8:1-4; 9:11, 24-25; 10:21). The epistle suggests that Christ went beyond the veil into the heavenly holy of holies in the same manner that the Israelite high priest of the Aaronic order went behind the veil once year, the difference being that Christ performed this ritual act only once (Hebrews 9:7-8, 11-12, 24). This, they say, is evidence that only Christ can be our high priest.[ix]

This interpretation ignores the clear declaration of Hebrews 10:19-21, which suggests that we, too, can go through the veil and thus can become high priests.[x] Hebrews 10:19-20 admonishes, “Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh.” Since this high priesthood is named after Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18; Psalm 110:4) and the words cited throughout the epistle to the Hebrews from Psalm 110 were addressed to David, Christ is clearly not the only one to have held it.

Peter wrote to the Church, “ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9). He drew this idea from Exodus 19:6, where the Lord says to the Israelites, “ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.” Because they did not keep the Lord’s commandments, Israel lost the opportunity to receive the Melchizedek priesthood and the only ones who were ordained priests were the descendants of Aaron.[xi] Drawing on the Exodus and 1 Peter passages, the second-century AD Christian philosopher Justin Martyr wrote, “we are the true high priestly race of God, as even God Himself bears witness, saying that in every place among the Gentiles sacrifices are presented to Him well-pleasing and pure. Now God receives sacrifices from no one, except through His priests” (Dialogue with Trypho 116).[xii]

The apostle John also noted that Christ “hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him [be] glory and dominion for ever and ever” (Revelation 1:6). In his vision, he saw twenty-four elders seated around the throne of God and declaring that Christ “made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:10). Since the Aaronic priesthood was restricted to descendants of Aaron, both Peter and John must have been writing about the Melchizedek priesthood.

Another passage to consider is Hebrews 3:1, in which early Christians were admonished, “Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, Christ Jesus.” Since Jesus, who is here called both an apostle and high priest, selected twelve other apostles, it is not unreasonable to suggest that he also called high priests. That the office of high priest was recognized in the early Church is evidenced in the declarations of some of the earliest Church Fathers.

Ignatius, an early second-century bishop of Antioch, wrote of “those who indeed talk of the bishop, but do all things without him” and noted that Christ “is the true and first Bishop, and the only High Priest by nature” (Epistle to the Magnesians 4).[xiii] A similar declaration is found in Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 8.5.46: “the universal Bishop and the High Priest of the Father, Jesus Christ our Lord . . . The great High Priest therefore, who is so by nature, is Christ the only begotten.”[xiv] If Christ is the “true” bishop and the only “natural” high priest, it follows that there are other bishops and high priests who do not hold those offices by nature, but by ordination.

In another of his epistles, Ignatius instructed the early saints “Let governors be obedient to Caesar; soldiers to those that command them; deacons to the presbyters, as to high-priests; the presbyters, and deacons, and the rest of the clergy, together with all the people, and the soldiers, and the governors, and Caesar [himself], to the bishop; the bishop to Christ, even as Christ to the Father” (Epistle to the Philadelphians 4).[xv] In his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 9, Ignatius admonished his readers to “Honour thou God indeed, as the Author and Lord of all things, but the bishop as the high-priest, who bears the image of God-of God, inasmuch as he is a ruler, and of Christ, in his capacity of a priest.”[xvi]

The late first-century AD writer Clement of Rome wrote about the early Church that the Lord’s “own peculiar services are assigned to the high priest, and their own proper place is prescribed to the priests, and their own special ministrations devolve on the Levites. The layman is bound by the laws that pertain to laymen” (1 Clement 40).[xvii]

The Didache or “Teachings” of the Twelve Apostles, written in the late first century or early second century AD, says that “every true prophet that willeth to abide among you is worthy of his support. So also a true teacher is himself worthy, as the workman, of his support. Every first-fruit, therefore, of the products of wine-press and threshing-floor, of oxen and of sheep, thou shalt take and give to the prophets, for they are your high priests. But if ye have not a prophet, give it to the poor” (Didache 13:1-3).[xviii]

We noted earlier that the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles sometimes compared the Old Testament offices of high priest, priest, and levite, with offices in the early Christian Church. Other passages describe some of the duties of these high priests. For example one such passage mentions the oil that “is blessed by the high priest for the remission of sins, and the first preparation for baptism” (Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 7.2.42)[xix] Another gives the prayer that is to be pronounced by “the high priest” (Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 8.2.10-11).[xx] It goes on to say, “Let the high priest, therefore, together with the priests, pray by himself; and let him put on his shining garment, and stand at the altar” (Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 8.2.12), then lists the words the high priest is to use during the ceremony.[xxi]

Among the other early Christian writers who mention the office of high priest in the Church are Hippolytus, an historian of the late second and early third centuries AD,[xxii] and Peter, a late third-century bishop of Alexandria.[xxiii]

The Bishop as High Priest

The Lord told the prophet that the office of bishop belongs, by right, to “the sons of Aaron,” but that a high priest could serve as bishop when no literal descendants of Aaron could be found (D&C 68:15-21; 107:13-17, 68-76; cf. D&C 84:29). It is not surprising that the early Christian bishops were sometimes called “high priests.”

Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 8.5.46 has the apostles declaring that “being taught by the Lord the series of things, we distributed the functions of the high-priesthood to the bishops, those of the priesthood to the presbyters, and the ministration under them both to the deacons.”[xxiv] Speaking of the duties of bishops, says, “As to a good shepherd, let the lay person honor him, love him, reverence him as his Lord, as his master, as the high priest of God, as a teacher of piety. For he that heareth him, heareth Christ; and he that rejecteth him, rejecteth Christ” (Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 2.3.20).[xxv] In a section describing the prayer employed for the ordination of bishops, Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 8.2.5 says, “Grant by Thy name, O God, who searchest the hearts, that this Thy servant, whom Thou hast chosen to be a bishop, may feed Thy holy flock, and discharge the office of an high priest to Thee . . . grant that this Thy servant whom Thou hast chosen to the holy office of Thy bishop, may discharge the duty of a high priest to Thee, and minister to Thee unblameably night and day; that he may appease Thee unceasingly, and present to Thee the gifts of Thy holy Church, and in the spirit of the high-priesthood have power to remit sins according to Thy commandment.”[xxvi]

Other early texts suggest that Christian bishops were considered to be high priests.[xxvii] For example, Ignatius of Antioch wrote, “Honor thou God indeed, as the Author and Lord of all things, but the bishop as the high-priest, who bears the image of God-of God, inasmuch as he is a ruler, and of Christ, in his capacity of a priest” (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 9).[xxviii] Tertullian (ca. AD 160-230) wrote on “giving and receiving baptism. Of giving it, the chief priest (who is the bishop) has the right: in the next place, the presbyters and deacons, yet not without the bishop’s authority, on account of the honor of the Church, which being preserved, peace is preserved” (On Baptism 17).[xxix]

The pseudepigraphic Divine Liturgy of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Mark 1.3 includes a communal prayer that reads, “O Sovereign and Almighty God, the Father of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, we pray and beseech Thee to defend in Thy good mercy our most holy and blessed high priest our Father in God, and our most reverend Bishop. Preserve them for us through many years in peace, while they according to Thy holy and blessed will fulfill the sacred priesthood committed to their care.”[xxx] Similarly, Ambrose, bishop of Milan (died AD 397), describing the “mysteries” (ordinances) said, “You saw there the deacon, you saw the priest, you saw the chief priest” (On the Mysteries 2.6).[xxxi] That the bishop is the president or head of the priests quorum is noted in D&C 107:87-88.

An early Christian formula for the ordination of bishops reads, “This Thy servant, whom Thou hast chosen to be a bishop, may feed Thy holy flock, and discharge the office of an high priest to Thee . . . Father who knowest the hearts [of all] grant upon this Thy servant whom Thou hast chosen for the episcopate to feed Thy holy flock and serve as Thine high priest that he may minister blamelessly by night and day, and unceasingly [behold and] propitiate Thy countenance and offer to Thee the gifts of Thy holy Church , and in the spirit of the high-priesthood have power to remit sins according to Thy commandment, to give lots according to Thy injunction, to loose every bond according to the power which Thou hast given to the apostles, and be well-pleasing to Thee, in meekness and a pure heart offering a smell of sweet savor through Thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, with whom to Thee be glory, power, and honor, along with the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen” (The Apostolic Tradition 3.4).[xxxii] The term “episcopate” denotes the office of bishop, deriving from the Greek term episcopos.

In his “Last Farewell” (Oration 42.26), delivered “in the presence of the one hundred and fifty bishops” according to heading, Gregory of Nazianzen, bishop of Constantinople (died AD 389) referred to the “farewell assembly of high priests.”[xxxiii] In his Ecclesiastical History, Salaminius Hermias Sozemen (died AD 405) described the bishops in attendance at the first council of Nicea (AD 325) as high priests.[xxxiv]

The Acts of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, held at Nicea in AD 787, provide evidence that bishops assembled at the meeting were considered to be high priests. During the first session, Basil, bishop of Ancyra, referred to “all orthodox high-priests and priests.”[xxxv] Near the end of that session, the assembly heard from “John, the most reverend bishop and legate of the Eastern high priests,”[xxxvi] while in the minutes from the fourth session, he is called “John the most reverend monk and presbyter and representative of the Eastern high priests.”[xxxvii] The second canon adopted by the council decreed that a candidate for the office of bishop must “be zealously inclined to read diligently, and not merely now and then, the sacred canons, the holy Gospel, and the book of the divine Apostles, and all other divine Scripture . . . For the special treasure of our high priesthood is the oracles which have been divinely delivered to us, that is the true science of the Divine Scriptures.”[xxxviii]


The restoration of priesthood keys through the prophet Joseph Smith was the most important aspect of the re-establishment of Christ’s Church on the earth in the last days. From these keys, the prophet was authorized to call various officers and to return to the organization that prevailed in the days of Christ’s apostles. That organization had been changed during the course of the apostasy that occurred during the first and second centuries AD, but, as we have seen in this chapter, some later texts recalled enough elements of the priesthood offices to enable us to see the restored Church as a reflection of the Church of the meridian of time.

[i] For an in-depth discussion, see John A. Tvedtnes, The Church of the Old Testament (2nd ed., Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1980).

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., Anti-Nicene Fathers (reprint Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 8:585.

[iv] R. H. Connolly and H. W. Codrington, Two Commentaries on the Jacob Liturgy (Oxford and London: Williams and Norgate, 1913), 16.

[v] Ibid., 36. Note the words of Leo the Great in his Sermon 59.1: “For now there is a nobler rank of Levites, there are elders of greater dignity and priests of holier anointing: because Thy cross is the fount of all blessings, the source of all graces, and through it the believers receive strength for weakness, glory for shame, life for death.” See Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series (reprint, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 12:173.

[vi] Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Anti-Nicene Fathers, 7:410. Earlier in the same passage, after describing the role of priests and Levites in the tabernacle of Moses, the text says, “You, therefore, O bishops, are to your people priests and Levites, ministering to the holy tabernacle, the holy Catholic Church; who stand at the altar of the Lord your God, and offer to Him reasonable and unbloody sacrifices through Jesus the great High Priest . . . For those who attend upon the Church ought to be maintained by the Church, as being priests, Levites, presidents, and ministers of God . . . Those which were then first-fruits, and tithes, and offerings, and gifts, now are oblations, which are presented by holy bishops to the Lord God, through Jesus Christ, who has died for them. For these are your high priests, as the presbyters are your priests, and your present deacons instead of your Levites” (ibid., 7:409-10). See the discussion in chapter 51, Caring for the Poor.

[vii] Ibid. 7:421-2.

[viii] Joseph Smith said, “Respecting the Melchizedek Priesthood, the sectarians never professed to have it; consequently they never could save any one, and would all be damned together. There was an Episcopal priest who said he had the priesthood of Aaron, but had not the priesthood of Melchizedek and I bear testimony that I never have found the man who claimed the Priesthood of Melchizedek. The power of the Melchizedek priesthood is to have the power of “endless lives;” for the everlasting covenant cannot be broken. What was the power of Melchizedek? ‘Twas not the Priesthood of Aaron which administers in outward ordinances, and the offering of sacrifices. Those holding the fullness of the Melchizedek Priesthood are kings and priests of the Most High God, holding the keys of power and blessings. In fact, that priesthood is a perfect law of theocracy, and stands as God to give laws to the people, administering endless lives to the sons and daughters of Adam” (History of the Church 5:554-5). See also John A. Tvedtnes, “Is There a ‘Priesthood of All Believers’?” posted on the FAIR web site, December 2008.

[ix] This view was first expressed in the early third century by the Christian theologian Origen, who wrote in his Commentary on the Gospel of John 1:3 that “those who devote themselves to the divine word and have no other employment but the service of God may not unnaturally, allowing for the difference of occupation in the two cases, be called our levites and priests. And those who fulfil a more distinguished office than their kinsmen will perhaps be high-priests, according to the order of Aaron, not that of Melchisedek. Here some one may object that it is somewhat too bold to apply the name of high-priests to men, when Jesus Himself is spoken of in many a prophetic passage as the one great priest, as ‘We have a great high-priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God.’ But to this we reply that the Apostle clearly defined his meaning, and declared the prophet to have said about the Christ, ‘Thou art a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchisedek,’ and not according to the order of Aaron. We say accordingly that men can be high-priests according to the order of Aaron, but according to the order of Melchisedek only the Christ of God” (Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Anti-Nicene Fathers, 9:298). In Commentary on the Gospel of John 12:20, he wrote, that “it was necessary that He [Christ] should go unto the Jerusalem below, and there suffer many things from the elders in it, and the chief priests and scribes of the people, in order that He might be glorified by the heavenly elders who could receive his bounties, and by diviner high-priests who are ordained under the one High-Priest” (ibid., 9:462).

[x] A common argument used in some Protestant circles is that Hebrews 7:24 indicates that Christ’s priesthood cannot be transferred to another. While this was the way the Greek term was understood by earlier generations, more recent discoveries of nonbiblical Greek texts demonstrate that it really means “unchangeable” (as the King James version renders it) or “permanent.” See Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 80b.

[xi] See the discussion in John A. Tvedtnes, “The Higher and Lesser Laws,” in Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and Stephen D. Ricks, eds., Revelation, Reason, and Faith: Essays in Honor of Truman G. Madsen (Provo: FARMS, 2002).

[xii] Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Anti-Nicene Fathers, 1:257.

[xiii] Ibid., 1:61. In his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 9, Ignatius wrote of “Christ Jesus, the First-born, and the only High Priest, by nature, of the Father” (ibid., 1:90).

[xiv] Ibid., 7:500.

[xv] Ibid., 1:81-2. Ignatius repeated these instructions in his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 9 (ibid., 1:90).

[xvi] Ibid., 1:90.

[xvii] Ibid., 1:16.

[xviii] Ibid., 7:381.

[xix] Ibid., 7:476.

[xx] Ibid., 7:485-6.

[xxi] Ibid., 7:496.

[xxii] “But none will refute these, save the Holy Spirit bequeathed unto the Church, which the Apostles, having in the first instance received, have transmitted to those who have rightly believed. But we, as being their successors, and as participators in this grace, high-priesthood and office of teaching, as well as being reputed guardians of the Church, must not be found deficient in vigilance, or disposed to suppress correct doctrine” (Refutation of All Heresies 1 introduction, in ibid., 5:10).

[xxiii] “Nor will I omit to mention you, ye most holy fathers and high priests of the divine law, Heraclius and Demetrius” (Genuine Acts of Peter), in ibid., 6:264.

[xxiv] Ibid., 7:801.

[xxv] Ibid., 7:404.

[xxvi] Ibid., 7:482.

[xxvii] Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 8.2.12, ibid., 7:486. Hippolytus reported that the prayer offered at the ordaining of a bishop names him a high priest (The Apostolic Tradition 3.4).

[xxviii] Ibid., 1:90. By this time, bishop was the highest office in the church.

[xxix] Ibid., 3:677. By Tertullian’s time, with no direct revelation to guide them, church leaders had been decided that, in the absence of the bishop or a priest, deacons and lay persons could perform baptism, in order to accommodate infants and the dying. Baptism for the dead had been lost to the western church by this time.

[xxx] Ibid., 7:552.

[xxxi] Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, 10:317.

[xxxii] Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Anti-Nicene Fathers, 7:960.

[xxxiii] Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series (reprint, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 7:394.

[xxxiv] The heading to 1.21 notes that “certain of the high priests differ from the council” (ibid., 2:255). At the end of 1.25, he wrote of “illustrious high priests” in attendance (ibid., 2:257). In 2.17, he wrote, “For my part, I am convinced that it was by Divine appointment that Athanasius [bishop of Alexandria] succeeded to the high-priesthood” (ibid., 2:269). The introduction to 3.7 mentions the “high priests of Rome and of Constantinople” in reference to the bishops of those cities (ibid., 2:286). The introduction to 3.8 speaks of the “arrival of the eastern high priests at Rome” (2:287), while the heading to 3.12 says that “the bishops of the party of Julius and Hostius held another session and deposed the eastern high priests” (ibid., 2:290). In 7:7, Sozemon wrote, “The emperor and the priests therefore proceeded to the election of another bishop . . . so that the most excellent and best individual might be intrusted with the high-priesthood of the great and royal city” (2:380). Sozemon also noted, in 6.19, the death of “Athanasius, bishop of the church of Alexandria . . . after having completed his high-priesthood in about forty-six years” (ibid., 2:357). He also mentioned, in 6.38, a monk named Moses whom he calls both “bishop” and “chief priest” (ibid., 2:374).

[xxxv] Ibid., 14:533.

[xxxvi] Ibid., 14:535.

[xxxvii] Ibid., 14:539.

[xxxviii] Ibid., 14:556. In reference to the bishop of Rome, Canon 39 of the Council of Carthage (AD 397), which is the same as Canon 25 of the Synod of Hippo (AD 393), ordains “That the bishop of the first see shall not be called Prince of the Priests or High Priest (Summus Sacerdos) or any other name of this kind, but only Bishop of the First See” (ibid., 14:461)